Turning off the incessant chatter in our minds is easier said than done, and that alone tends to be a big downfall for many who try meditation. I personally can't sit down for more than five minutes without feeling immensely frustrated, which is why I choose to seek out mindfulness by way of forest bathing—walking around in nature gives me the opportunity to focus on my surroundings, which in turn quiets my brain.
Though regular forest bathing has been part of my weekly routine for months, I never realized that there's actually a name for the strategy behind it—that is, the idea that when we ask our brains to take in a fresh experience without preconceived notions, all the other noise falls away, and we can truly live in the moment. It's a Zen Buddhist concept called "beginner's mind," and it might just be the key to finding mindfulness in every situation.
What is Beginner's Mind?
"If you've ever learned something new, you can remember what that's like: You're probably confused, because you don't know how to do whatever you're learning, but you're also looking at everything as if it's brand new, perhaps with curiosity and wonder," explains Leo Babauta of Zen Habits to Business Insider.
Think about eating, for example: When you sit down for dinner, it's probably food you've had before; you're not thinking about the vibrant colors of the veggies on your plate or the fluffy texture of the rice. You already know what it all tastes like, so the thought doesn't occur much to you as you chew and swallow. So your mind wanders to what happened during your day, and you start to think about everything on your to-do list this week. Before you know it, you look down, and your plate is finished.
That's your "expert mind" at work. It's not in the moment because it doesn't need to be—it's the essence of "been there, done that." But what if you treated that meal as if it were the first time you were tasting those foods? You might deeply inhale the scents or marvel at the way the flavors coalesce. You may even notice the decorative grooves on the handle of your fork. You're slowing yourself down to notice every single bite, and that is beginner's mind. That's also mindful eating.
To practice, try the "Sultana Exercise"
There's actually a relatively popular exercise among the mindfulness community that puts this concept into practice using sultanas (aka raisins). Starting with a raisin in your hand, you move through a mental checklist that honors your five senses and effectively slows the eating process:
- What does the raisin look like?
- How does it feel in your hand?
- What does it smell like?
- What does it taste like? Can you pause and notice how it feels as you chew slowly and swallow?
Once you've mastered it, beginner's mind is a strategy that can be applied to virtually any scenario, moment, or even mood—Babauta notes that it can also be used in situations of anxiety so that you might approach the source of your stress with curiosity rather than dread or worry. And in the end, it's a very simple way of reframing the concept of mindfulness altogether. (Anything is better than just sitting down and closing your eyes, right?)
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